If you have been a foster parent for any length of time, you have surely learned that foster parenting is both the best and the hardest thing you’ve ever done. The layers of dynamics and stress that go along with inviting strangers into your home and trying to provide a nurturing environment where they can heal and grow, while continuing to carry around in their bodies and brains the effects of trauma and neglect, is no small feat. To foster parent well requires a significant amount of intention, effort, and work.
Flourishing as a foster family does not happen naturally.
Recently, I invited trauma and adoption therapist Lesley Joy Ritchie to be our guest for a Flourishing Foster Parent coaching call, and she said something that was so important: despite how hard it is, and despite how stressed out we can be much of the time, it is vital that we find a way to connect and enjoy one another every day.
This is much easier said than done.
When you deal with challenging behaviors on a daily basis—lying, tantrums, oppositional or defiant behavior, violence, etc.—it can be very tempting to, in Lesley’s words, “consequence all of the joy out of life.” But that is the most counter-productive thing we can do if we want to help our kids heal and grow emotionally healthy. In fact, one of the hardest parts of trauma-informed parenting is recognizing that, often times, when our instincts tell us to issue a consequence for unacceptable behavior, what our child really needs is an opportunity to connect.
I confess that I have not done well with this over the years. I am someone who is naturally inclined to cancel fun activities as punishment, rather than do the work of letting natural consequences do the teaching. As trauma therapist and fellow foster-adoptive mother Dena Johnson said on another FFP coaching call, “We all want our pound of flesh!” Sometimes it feels good to punish a child who has given us a hard time—but it doesn’t help solve the root cause of their hard behavior.
One of the ways I have attempted to address my own weakness in this area is to create a weekly rhythm of family life that has built-in, non-negotiable opportunities for connection. This way, even if I’m frustrated with one of my kids or a child has really blown it, we still have opportunities to connect, whether we feel like it or not. Here they are!
Family Meals. We eat dinner together every night as a family. It’s one of our stated expectations when new children join our home—we make it clear that everyone is expected to come to the dinner table when the dinner bell rings (yes, I use a dinner bell). If you have an older child who spends most of her time alone in her room, this is one way to guarantee connection with her every day, which is vital if you find it hard to wade through teenage hostility (or even just the laundry on the floor) to connect. We always try to have at least one item on the table that everyone likes (rice, baked potatoes, or bread are staple dinner items, as well as Caesar salad, which everyone in our family likes) and we encourage, but don’t insist, that everyone try everything being offered. Sometimes, we use conversational prompts (such as these from The Family Dinner Project) or just let the chatter run wild. It’s loud, it’s messy—and it’s important to helping the family gather and see one another every day.
Family Movie Night. Every Friday night, we have a Family Movie Night, when we order pizza and watch a movie together. It can be challenging to find movies that appeal to everyone, as our kids range in age from 5-17, but we have managed to do a pretty good job for the most part. There are great Disney Pixar films of course, which are enjoyable for all ages, and we’ve loved introducing some old favorites from our childhood as well (we recently watched Escape to Witch Mountain, which I had forgotten was about two siblings in foster care). The kids and adults always look forward to it, and it’s the one time each week when we are all guaranteed to be gathered together in one room sharing the same activity. Also, we never take away Family Movie Night as a consequence. It’s a vital part of building family connections.
Family Meeting. Once a week, usually on Sundays, we hold a Family Meeting. I have written about our Family Meeting here and shared on YouTube here. (Full disclosure: this has been less structured since the time of quarantine began, as we are together all the time and connecting more throughout the week. That said, my husband and I just committed to restarting the more structured meetings again). Having a time to connect with the whole family, share compliments and appreciations, play board games together, hand out allowance, and review calendar items so everyone is aware of what’s coming up in the week is invaluable fostering family connection and a healthy overall rhythm of family life. We see a huge difference when we skip family meetings.
These are just three things we do consistently to ensure that opportunities to connect happen every week. For kids who come from highly dysfunctional, abusive, or neglectful family systems, the consistency of these positive connections works wonders. It also provides good opportunities to model clear communication, organization, preparation, and planning. And since more is caught than taught, we see our kids imitating the skills they absorb in family meetings, from financial management (we give allowance, but insist that 10% go into a savings account and 10% go into a giving jar) to time management (our kids all understand how to read a calendar and are empowered to consult the family schedule when they wonder what’s happening the the week ahead).